1920-1939 | 1960-1969 | Diego Garcia | Refusing refugees



The Rudnitchar - Haganah Archives.
The Rudnitchar – Haganah Archives.

[ 30 December 1939 ]

On 30 December 1939, at the request of the Colonial Office, the Admiralty directed the Commander in Chief of the British navy in the Mediterranean to intercept a Bulgarian river steamer carrying desperate refugees from Nazi occupied Europe, who were hoping to reach the Jewish settled areas of Palestine, which was then under British control. The plan was to confiscate the Rudnitchar, prosecute her Captain and senior crew, and return all the passengers to Bulgaria, a country which was falling increasingly under Nazi Germany’s area of control.  Fortunately for the refugees, the ship managed to evade the British navy and land its passengers in small boats near Haifa. The Foreign Office was disappointed to discover that only two of the 505 illegal immigrants the British police in Palestine managed to detain had Bulgarian passports. They knew this meant that it would be impossible to pressure Bulgaria into taking the refugees back and so they had no practical option but to allow them to remain in Palestine.1


An aerial view of Diego Garcia (U.S. Navy via Wikimedia)
An aerial view of Diego Garcia (U.S. Navy via Wikimedia)

[ 30 December 1966 ]

Today in 1966, a secret plan was agreed between Britain and the United States, by which Washington would cancel $14 million in military debts and in return London undertook to take ‘administrative measures’ for ‘resettling the inhabitants’ of the Indian ocean island of Diego Garcia. The United States planned to build a huge military base on the island which was the largest of the Chagos archipelago, a territory which Britain had purchased in 1965 from Mauritius.  The transfer of sovereignty agreement had been reached only after Prime Minister Harold Wilson had informed a Mauritian delegation that ‘if you don’t agree to what I am proposing [about the Chagos Islands] then forget about independence.’2

From 1967, Chagossians traveling to Mauritius for medical care or on vacation, found they were unable to return home. Then, British authorities began to restrict the flow of food and medical supplies to the island. As conditions deteriorated, many felt compelled to leave, but some still preferred to remain in the their homes, until these last stubborn inhabitants were ordered to embark overcrowded cargo ships. They were allowed to take with them no more than one box of possessions and disembarked at Mauritius and the Seychelles, where with little money most of them found it near impossible to find a home or a job. In 1975 a Washington Post reporter noted that most were living ‘in abject poverty.’3


  1. Bernard Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945, Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 54-55.
  2. Sir Anerood Jugnauth cited in Andrew Harding, “Chagos Islands dispute: UK ‘threatened’ Mauritius,” BBC News, 27 August 2018, accessed online at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-45300739
  3. Cited in David Vine, ‘The Truth About Diego Garcia,’ The Huffington Post, 15 June 2015 – Huffington Post. Accessed online at https://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-vine/the-truth-about-diego-gar_b_7585546.html

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